The gospel passage refers to two recent tragedies that were on people’s minds. Pilate had ordered the massacre of some Galileans who had come to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices in the temple. And eighteen people had been killed when a tower at Siloam fell on them. Jesus comments that the victims of these tragedies were no greater sinners than other people were. He then says: “But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” Then he tells them the parable about the person who had planted a fig tree that did not bear any fruit. When the owner ordered it to be cut down, the gardener asked for another year of cultivation to see if the fig tree would finally bear fruit before it was cut down.
Jesus uses the experiences of the worst possible human tragedies in order to reveal the possibility of even a greater spiritual tragedy. We are all in a state not only of physical death, but of spiritual death as well. Unless we turn to God to be saved from our condition of spiritual death, Jesus warns us, all of us will remain in it and perish. Saint Paul particularly in his Letter to the Romans clearly spells out the reality of the death-culture to which Jesus alludes: “Jews and Greeks alike that they are all under the domination of sin” (3:9). And this condition of Sin (alienation from God, the source of life) Paul equates with Death.
The human condition of Sin/Death, initiated by the first humans, pre-exists the sins of individuals and is not their responsibility, even though they have added to it by their own personal sins. Without God’s liberating grace, human beings would remain helplessly mired in a state of enslavement to Sin/Death. Jesus says: Realize the truth of the state you are in. Accept the liberated life of God’s kingdom that I now offer you, or you will all perish. It is easy to see why Jesus is distressed by the illusion of self-righteousness that makes repentance and liberation from Sin/Death impossible. I can think of no better illustrations of this most fundamental teaching of Jesus than the fiction of Flannery O’Connor. Her short stories have the power to awaken us to the truth that we are all inextricably involved in evil, and are all in dire need of God’s liberating, saving grace.
After the warning about perishing in our sinful state unless we repent, Luke adds Jesus’ parable about the fig tree. We may be liberated from our fallen state of Sin/Death and stand in freedom like a fig tree. However, if we choose evil and do not bear the fruit of good work, we will be cut down like a useless fig tree. In the second reading of today’s Mass (1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12), Paul forcefully emphasizes the warning of Jesus’ parable. Paul writes that his ancestors were liberated for new life with God from their condition of death-slavery in Egypt. However, under pressure of their trials they succumbed to evil desires and thus reverted to a state of enslavement. “God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert.”
The experience of the liberated slaves in the desert, Paul tells us, is meant to serve as an example for us so that we will not desire evil things. If we do, we would revert to our original enslavement to Sin/Death as idolaters, seeking life where it cannot be found. Paul’s warning is an apt comment on the teaching of Jesus’ parable: “Therefore whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.” At the same time, in the Spirit of Jesus, he offers us a word of comfort: “God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it” (1 Cor 10: 12-13).
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.